How To Raise a Traveler
In about 5 months, I’m going to be a father. This anticipatory time — the time before I’m tossed a screaming red potato that only knows how to yowl and poop — is sweet. My wife and I sit around and wonder what she’ll be like, and how we’ll impart to her the things that are most important to us.
One thing we want her to be is a traveler. I was lucky enough to be raised by travelers myself, so I know exactly what I need to do for her.
1. Be a traveler.
“Do as I say, not as I do,” is one of those commands like, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” that might have originally been meant as an obviously absurd injunction, but which has since passed into sincere use.
A child that doesn’t see a parent traveling is not going to be as likely to travel. And while most of my colleagues will say, “Travel with your kids,” I have to admit that what my father did that was most effective in turning me into a traveler was to travel without me. I’d get a hug goodbye and he would disappear for a week, returning with a few tantalizing stories and an mysterious trinket.
It was maddening. When my parents went to London, they returned with a box of sardine-shaped chocolates in a beautiful wooden box. “What,” my little 7-year-old brain wondered, “On earth is going on in the United Kingdom?” I thought that maybe the inhabitants of this island of Kings could only eat sweets that were in the shape of fish, or that perhaps their fish were made of chocolate, or that perhaps this treat had been stolen from a Queen’s stash.
It did not matter that the chocolate sardines were almost certainly bought at Duty Free at Heathrow on their way home. 20 years later, I moved to London, and I never found the chocolate fish for sale anywhere. Perhaps they were from the Queen’s stash. Or perhaps the UK, like the US, has had its chocolate schools depleted by overfishing. Either way, I waited two decades to go find out for myself.
2. Tap into their instincts.
“We invest far-off places with a certain romance,” Carl Sagan once said. “The appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game… none of them lasts forever. Your own life, or your bands, or even your species might be owed to a restless few drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand to undiscovered lands and new worlds.”
Children all want to explore. Let them. My parents did not hold my hand when I ran into the woods at the end of our street. They may have reasonably worried about tetanus, or flash floods in the creeks I played in, but they knew that when I stood on top of the hill in the woods, where no one could see me, where all was mine for the exploration, that I would feel something primal, exciting, and strange, and that this feeling would stick with me forever.
3. Encourage curiosity.
Tolerance is a perfectly fine virtue. It is certainly better than hate. But it is a passive virtue. The tolerant person merely puts up with their neighbor. He simply asks to live and let live. A person could easily say, “Good fences make good neighbors,” without revealing any contradictions in his or her character.
Curiosity, however, is a more active and exploratory characteristic. It guides a person to be interested in other people. It fosters understanding and kindness.
It is curiosity, not tolerance, that must be fostered in a young traveler. My mother did this by asking me questions. I suspect she initially did this because if she did not, I would not stop asking her questions, but in the long run, her questions taught me to wonder about the world around me, and to seek answers.
4. Enrich their world with stories about travelers.
There is now an amazing Disney movie for travelers. It wasn’t around when I was a kid. It was released in 2016, and is called Moana. It’s about a girl who feels a duty to take care of her family and village, but also feels the irresistible urge to explore.
(It is also maybe the first Disney movie to not be about a girl finding love — which is definitely a step in the right direction.)
There are hundreds of stories about travelers and wanderers. In the best ones, people travel not to find the girl or throw a ring into a pit of fire, but because the universe is meant to be explored, and because travel is fun. Children who hear these stories will become explorers theirselves.
5. Teach them to love failure.
People who are scared of failing are not fun to travel with. They tend to have overly-planned, sterilized itineraries that are built around bucket lists (Down with the bucket list! The threat of death is not a good reason to live).
Travelers who are willing to make mistakes are the best. When my wife and I went on a trip with our cousins in the American South, we were told by a drunk man to take a back road to New Orleans. He told us the road was beautiful — there were waterfalls every mile, there were lush bayous, there were birds, there were critters!
There were none of these things. It was a straight road through state park which I’m sure was beautiful a few miles off the road. It cut into our time in New Orleans. But while we could’ve groused about the delay, we instead had an adventure. We took pictures next to political campaign signs with hilarious candidate names (god bless you, Sheila Butt). We took a mini-hike over a quiet creek on the side of the road and stumbled into a single-family graveyard that had burials dating back to the 1890s (including many graves for children who died in the same year they were born). We listened to music and talked about nothing important.
We could have seen it as a failure, but instead it became an unplanned little adventure. There’s not a lot to learn from success, but mistakes teach us a lot. People who are afraid to fail spend their lives on the freeways.